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Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets – Game One
Clint Capela #15 of the Houston Rockets slaps hands with fans after Game One of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Toyota Center on April 15, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Tim Warner/Getty Images

Clint Capela could be front and center for the Rockets during playoffs

Unheralded big man who helped Houston to league’s best record is coming off dominant performance in opener

HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets won a franchise-record 65 games this season, and much of the credit goes to scoring champion and probable MVP James Harden, along with point guard Chris Paul. But one of the Rockets’ most unheralded players has been 23-year-old starting center Clint Capela, who is coming off a career postseason-best 24 points and 12 rebounds in Houston’s 104-101 win over Minnesota in Game 1 of its Western Conference series.

“Y’all know the record when we all play together, and I’ll tell you it’s not because of me and James,” Paul said. “Clint is really the X factor. He opens up so much for us.”

The Rockets are 42-3 when Harden, Paul and Capela are together in the lineup, not including the playoffs.

“That stat makes me proud, man. It’s just crazy to be included in that statement,” Capela said. “It just makes me want to go harder. It shows that we are working well together and that I’m going the right way.”

Capela’s dominance on both ends of the floor in Game 1 came against one of the NBA’s best young big men, the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting. Harden, who dropped a game-high 44 points in Game 1, was quick to praise his young center, especially for his efforts in the first half, in which he led all scorers and rebounders.

“In the beginning of the game, we just saw a different Clint,” Harden said. “He was running so fast that I had no choice but to give him the ball or figure out a way to get him the ball. Defensively, the way he was being active, blocking shots, rebounding the basketball, he was just like a deer out there. When you have that pace and bring that kind of energy to a basketball game, great things are bound to happen to you. If he continues to bring that every single night, which we need from him, it’ll be tough. It’ll be tough for a lot of different teams.”

To truly understand what Capela’s ascension from the G League to potential All-Star on the team with the NBA’s best record means, one has to understand his story.

A native of Geneva, Capela has adopted Houston as his home. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Capela took it upon himself to get addresses via Twitter and notify emergency services of people who needed help. His willingness to show love and support to the people of Houston has not only endeared him to the city but also has increased his platform off the court. Capela wore a pair of customized Black Panther-themed sneakers for two games at home this season. He wanted to show his appreciation for what he called a “very important movie during the complicated times we live in today.”

“I come from African parents; I grew up in an African vibe back home in Switzerland,” Capela said. “I was just so proud of that movie. I was a fan. I wanted to share that. I’m happy that everyone loved the shoes, but it was all about the message. It was just beautiful.”

Capela’s mother, Philomene, emigrated from Congo to Switzerland. After her husband left the family, she struggled as a single parent and had to place Capela and his two brothers into a group home when he was only 6.

“My mom means everything,” Capela said. “She went through so much. When she put us into foster care, it was really tough for her. She was taking care of all of us by herself, working seven days a week. She was always so busy. Today I realize all she had to do to help give us the best life possible.”

One of Capela’s proudest moments was during his rookie season in 2014-15, after the Rockets selected him 25th overall in the draft. He gave his mother virtually all of his rookie salary.

“She had taxes to pay for 20 years, so I took care of it. Taxes from insurance, home and social help,” Capela said.

Two decades of debt were wiped away after one season in the NBA.

“It just made me so proud to tell my mom that she didn’t need to work anymore,” Capela said. “Now she can be happy and do what she wants. Now she gets to go back to Congo to visit her parents and her sisters, then comes back and spends time with me here in Houston. Giving her that freedom is something that I have dreamed about for a long time.”

Sports were an outlet for Capela growing up, but it wasn’t basketball that grabbed his heart at a young age — it was soccer.

“All of us kids always had family problems and issues, but the only thing that would bring us together was playing soccer,” Capela said. “We would be outside every day, pretending we were on a famous football ground. Every Champions League game, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we would watch on TV and it would bring us all together. It was a common bond, and would make us all very happy and excited. This is why I love soccer so much, because it did so much for me growing up.”

Capela, who is a big fan of Arsenal F.C. because he admires the club and French legend Thierry Henry, originally wanted to pursue a career in soccer. That was until his older brother, Landry, who had already started playing basketball, suggested that, even though Capela was a successful striker who scored a lot of goals with his head because of his height, he should give hoops a try.

“I was hesitant at first,” Capela said with a wry smile. “But once I got on the court with my brother, the game came naturally to me. I decided to dedicate myself completely to the game, and from then on I never stopped. Some of my footwork, though, I got from my soccer days. So, again, soccer helped me, even in basketball.”

Capela started playing organized basketball at the age of 13, and his passion for the game grew as he followed his Swiss countryman, Thabo Sefolosha, who was at the peak of his NBA career.

“Whenever I would take the bus, I would always see the sports newspapers on the stands and see reports on Thabo,” Capela said. “Every day it would say he did this and he did that, and I thought to myself, man, maybe one day I can have that chance. I started looking him up to see what path he took, how he got to where he wanted to go.”

“I didn’t have to tell Clint much, but I always told him to work hard. He’s been doing that,” Sefolosha said. “I’m very proud of what he’s done. He’s continued to improve every year. I think my journey to the NBA motivated him and showed him that it was possible to achieve his dream. He is developing into an excellent player.”

Sefolosha’s path to the NBA went through the French club team Élan Chalon, for which he played from 2002 through 2005, on the junior and senior squads. So you can imagine Capela’s excitement when, at age 14, he was spotted by Élan Chalon coach Romain Chenaud in his first tryout for the under-16 Swiss national team.

“I had a great few days in those national team trials,” Capela said. “I was really athletic and fast running down the floor and was really able to show off my skills. After the workout, Coach approached me and asked if I wanted to try out for Chalon in France. I couldn’t believe it. In my head I never thought it would happen, but that was my dream at the time: to be like Thabo, who was a hero in my country, and hopefully have a shot at the NBA. This is when I had that chance, and at 15 I left for France to pursue that dream.”

Of course, leaving his country at such a young age didn’t come easy. He described being homesick as “very, very painful.” He accepted the sacrifices he had to make, but his success made the entire process seem like a blur thanks to the quickness of his rise.

“From 15 to 17 I was with the young guys in the lower division, but at 17 I was able to start practicing with the pros,” Capela said. “During the season when I turned 18 years old, we qualified for the Euro League and I had a chance to play in one of those games. I’ll never forget it. I had 12 points and 12 boards, which was a big deal. That’s when people really started to talk about me and my skills. After that, my confidence was up. I really started playing well consistently and made the starting lineup. After another season, my coaches told me the NBA was a definite possibility, so I declared for the draft. From ages 15 to 19, everything went so damn fast.”

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey first observed Capela during his time at Chalon. Morey said he recalled just how hard he played on every possession.

Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon has played a huge role in Capela’s development. The Rockets legend spends most of his days around the team, specifically with the Swiss center.

“His work ethic isn’t a surprise. He had to work for everything he wanted while growing up,” Olajuwon said. “He is the real deal. He has improved every day he’s been here, and he still has a ways to go.”

Houston’s current big man relates to the Nigerian-born Olajuwon, who also started in soccer, on several levels.

“To be able to exchange words with him is something I never dreamed about,” Capela said. “My first year, it was incredible to get advice from one of the best to ever do it. Now I know him, and he’s always giving me advice about my game, about what I can add. It brings me great comfort that I can talk to him, not just about basketball but about life as well.”

Capela has come a long way from being sent to the D-League in his rookie season and playing a backup role to former Rockets center Dwight Howard. He’s done his part in making this Rockets team the best squad he’s ever played for, averaging 14 points per game, leading the league in field goal percentage at 65 percent and ranking eighth in rebounding with just under 11 per game. He will be a restricted free agent this summer.

He is a child of African parents, born in Switzerland, with an affinity for France, making his life as a basketball player in Houston. Capela is a true citizen of the world. He wants his story to be an example for immigrants who have run into tough times.

“It’s not easy at all for immigrants in this country right now,” Capela said. “For me, some people think I got here the easy way. It wasn’t easy at all. I went through a lot too. It’s not always right the way immigrants are treated here, but we all need to keep moving forward. It’s never going to be easy.

“I’m just proud of the grind that I went through, and what I’ll say to immigrants out there is, enjoy that grind because it’ll make the success that much sweeter in the end.”

Stefano Fusaro is a bureau reporter for ESPN, and has covered sports in major markets for 13 years. He’s a proud first generation American of Hispanic descent, but he was too short to make it to the NBA. So he settles for being an NBA 2K Hall of Famer.